Hide your kids, hide your wife, and hide your husband. Bed bugs are biting everybody out there – in recent weeks invading the headquarters of CNN, Elle magazine and a popular movie theater in Times Square.
While worst in the Northeast and especially New York City, blood-sucking bed bugs are making a remarkably rapid resurgence worldwide.
Though not known to spread disease, the itchy welts from their bites and the general distress caused by knowing one is being feasted on while asleep prove a nightmare for many victims.
Eradication can take months and cost thousands of dollars. There’s also the stigma — many high-end New York residences, for instance, keep their bed bug infestations secret to avoid embarrassment.
But why are bed bugs back? Though they’ve been sucking humans’ blood since at least ancient Greece, bed bugs became virtually extinct in America following the invention of pesticide DDT.
There were almost no bed bugs in the United States between World War II and the mid-1990s.
Around when bed bugs started their resurgence, Congress passed a major pesticides law in 1996 and the Clinton EPA banned several classes of chemicals that had been effective bed bug killers.
The debate isn’t over long-banned DDT, since modern bed bugs have developed a tolerance for that chemical. But in the pre-1996 regime, experts say, bed bugs were “collateral damage” from broader and more aggressive use of now-banned pesticides like Malathion and Propoxur.
Now some health officials are clamoring to bring those chemicals back to help solve the bed bug “emergency.” Meanwhile, EPA bureaucrats have downplayed the idea and environmentalists are pushing hard against the effort, citing safety concerns.
The issue has led to a standoff between Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, a Democrat, and EPA chief Lisa Jackson, who shot down Strickland’s appeals over the issue in a tersely worded letter in June.
While the debate continues regarding the role of EPA regulations in the rapid spread of bed bugs, both sides agree the problem is dire.
The EPA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a joint statement on Aug. 5 reflecting that urgency. “In recent years, public health agencies across the country have been overwhelmed by complaints about bed bugs,” the statement says.
As the statement notes, besides the health and psychological impacts of the blood suckers, the economic impact to victims can be severe. In many cases, victims discard most or all of their furniture and other belongings in a desperate push to rid themselves of the problem. There are extermination costs and expensive preventative measures like mattress encasements as well.
Compounding the spread of bed bugs are several factors other than EPA regulations, including the increased levels of travel and growing resistance in wild bed bug populations to the pesticides that are still allowed by the government.
According to research at the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, academic headquarters for studying the six-legged beast, some strains of bed bugs can survive, zombie-like, for up to 16 days after being directly sprayed with currently used pesticides.